The grounding of our ethics? Questions and uncertainty, all the way down. Barry Magid April 26th 2014

The precepts are a way of talking about how we understand the connection between insight or wisdom and how that is expressed in a form of life or forms of behavior. We have very different pictures of that connection and what’s involved in going from seeing the way things are to expressing something about how we think we ought to live, and moving from an “is” to an “ought” is always a fraught logical proposition.

In the Heart Sutra, it says that Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva doing deep prajna paramita, clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions thus completely relieving misfortune and pain. Seeing clearly leads to the relief of suffering, and for Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, this insight leads to a kind of spontaneous outpouring of compassion. Yet at different times and in different cultures, the nature of that spontaneous expression can look very different.

When we say Avalokitesvara clearly saw the emptiness of all five conditions, we may imagine she shaved her head, stopped eating meat, gave away all her possessions to the poor, became celibate. There are complicated cultural attitudes involved when we see insight into emptiness as going against the grain of some form of unhealthy attachment or desire, possessiveness. And at different times we see the killing of animals or owning of anything, making anyone the object of desire or control, are all something that is thought to be untenable in light of true wisdom. Yet we don’t know how to have a discussion about the nature of those conclusions. Are they things that can be talked out or debated?

There’s a line of thought that says, Well, if you don’t agree with that, those formulations, it’s simply a matter of your insight isn’t deep enough and there’s nothing to talk about. It’s curious that our questions of morality in different cultures at different times have been grounded in completely different things. Sometimes morality is grounded in revelation, in God’s Commandments, sometimes we try to ground it in something like a natural moral sense. Sometimes we think we can ground it in reason and what makes us human and moral is our capacity to reason and understand the nature of things. And we see a desire to arrive at a morality through reason in Kant, in Utilitarianism, in Rawls, all sorts of different figures at different times trying to have a rational formula for the proper way to behave. Emotional grounding of moral sentiment was proposed by Hume, and Adam Smith said that morality is based essentially on what we would call empathy, or the capacity to feel what someone else is feeling, and thereby have a visceral connection to the suffering of others.

In both traditional Chinese and classical Greek thought there were natural moral dispositions that needed to be developed and cultivated, and each culture proposed what it felt were fundamental and universal principles of morality, each of which were quite clear and sensible and unfortunately did not agree with each other. It is a dilemma when something that is thought to be good or just or right is not what it means to be good or just or right for people like us living here, now. We want it to have some kind of universal application. It’s been very hard to come up with anything like that, although we don’t stop trying.

The Greeks in particular thought that courage was a virtue, the Chinese thought that filial piety was a fundamental virtue. These lists didn’t overlap. Machiavelli was famous for pointing out how the classical virtues and the Christian virtues, each led to the development of certain kinds of admirable people but very different kinds of people in very different kinds of conditions.

There is usually some attempt in Buddhism and I suppose many other religions and cultures to ground something about our ethics in basic assumptions about human nature, and at different times we seem to operate in a model in which what we’re trying to do is cultivate our basic goodness and create the conditions of life or practice to allow us to become as fully human as possible because we have a sense that being fully human, means being fully good. And there are other times in which it seems that the actual content of morality presumes an intrinsic fallenness, a basic set of innate tendencies that must be extirpated or combatted at every turn, and that we need strict rules to keep us from doing the things that we would do naturally.

There have been attempts to find a basis in morality in our natural state through Darwin’s natural selection, but there’s a big problem in trying to relate what we call goodness to what Darwin called fitness. From a Darwinian perspective, any characteristics must have at some level been selected for over countless generations and they must have some evolutionary value, yet the basic Darwinian value is the promulgation of our genes as widely as possible, which would seem to make a sultan with a very large harem more valuable than a celibate Dalai Lama, yet we want to say that the Dalai Lama is a model of goodness, separate from fitness. On what basis?

Now, I raise all of this because I’m trying to point out what I think is a kind of natural human craving for foundations and universal principles. We think that when we come to a religion or a practice like this, we’re going to get some kind of clear answer about these questions. Yet one of the things emptiness means, is that we live in a world without those foundations, and we don’t quite know what that means. In one sense, we create a model that we think of as tolerant, and we say, Well, we think this and you think that, and each person is free to choose their own set of values, yet we don’t allow that to be true when we come to things like basic human rights. We don’t want to say that slavery may be a perfectly acceptable cultural decision; we want to believe that there’s something universally or fundamentally wrong there. And yet people who are against abortion, against killing animals for food, have an equally deep sense of the absoluteness of that principle, that it’s not open to discussion or cultural difference.

The philosopher Mary Midgley cited the case of one of her students in one of her philosophy classes who wanted to insist on a notion of tolerance and acceptance of difference by asking the question: Isn’t it always wrong to make moral judgments? We so quickly cycle back into finding a way of being absolutely sure of something. So what we’re talking about is a capacity to reside in an irreducible degree of uncertainty, that we all come to practice looking for answers and some kind of certainty, but we may discover that it’s questions and uncertainty all the way down.

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